(CN) — A study released Thursday by the Pew Research Center shows alternative social media sites like Truth Social and Parler are playing a small but growing role in the overall news and information landscape.
In recent years, the information environment has been impacted by tensions between the news media and former President Donald Trump's accusations of "fake news," causing Republicans to grow more skeptical of their trust in mainstream news sources.
As many Americans rely on major social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter for information, these sites began imposing third-party fact-checkers to label misinformation and suspending accounts for posting threatening content.
When Trump's accounts were permanently suspended following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, he created his own social media site, Truth Social, appealing to those who too felt censored by mainstream platforms and "cancel culture."
Several other new social media options have also emerged and taken a similar approach, many of which explicitly present themselves as "welcoming havens for free speech."
These newer sites have created a small but satisfied community of news consumers, many of whom say one of the major reasons they are there is to stay informed about current events, according to the Pew study.
The study included a survey of over 10,000 U.S. adults, along with an audit of seven alternative social media sites – BitChute, Gab, Gettr, Parler, Rumble, Telegram and Truth Social – and a detailed analysis of prominent accounts and content across them.
Although fewer than 1 in 10 respondents said they regularly use any of these seven sites to get their news, most of the 6% of Americans who do identify as Republicans or lean toward the Republican Party (66%), in contrast with the news consumers on more established social media sites, who largely identify as Democrats or lean Democratic.
Out of 200 accounts with the most followers per site, roughly half (54%) of their profiles appealed to some kind of value or political orientation.
Twenty-six percent of these prominent accounts expressed a right-wing message, "more of which centered around Trump or his 'Make America Great Again' movement than with the Republican Party or conservative ideology," according to Pew.
Like Trump, the study also found that 15% of prominent accounts on alternative social media sites have been banned or demonetized elsewhere on the internet.
Many of these accounts were blocked for spreading misinformation and inaccurate information, including that of Dr. Robert Malone, who spread false Covid-19 vaccine claims on Spotify's "The Joe Rogan Experience" podcast.
Despite their promotion of being a free speech sanctuary, almost all of the sites analyzed by Pew have at least some restrictions on content. With the exception of Gab, each of them moderates user content beyond the legal requirements to remove illegal content and cooperate with law enforcement requests.
These moderations include banning or suspending accounts that are deemed offensive or spreading misinformation, removing posts that may contain violent, racist or offensive content and, in some cases, for the political viewpoint expressed.
The Americans who said they have heard of these sites but do not use them as sources for news said it is because they are skeptical of the platforms.
"When asked for the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about alternative social media sites, people in this category commonly cite inaccuracy and misinformation, political bias and the political right, and extremism and fringe ideas," the Pew report states.
An analysis of recent content posted by prominent accounts on these sites alluded to some of these associations, finding that the most common phrases included some that are "controversial and even inflammatory," expressing wariness toward vaccines and negative associations with LGBTQ people.
Posts relating to vaccines were mostly found to be from vaccine skeptics, discussing terms related to real but rare impacts such as "adverse reaction," "blood clot" and "heart inflammation." However, other frequently mentioned terms had no basis in medical evidence related to vaccines, such as "sudden adult death syndrome" and low sperm counts.
LGBTQ-related posts commonly contained "derisive allegations toward gay and transgender individuals, such as 'pedo' and 'groomer,' implying that they prey on children," the Pew report states.
The analysis further found that much of the discussion surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection on these sites involved terms related to persecution, including “political prisoner,” “DC gulag,” “unselect committee,” “witch hunt” and “sham hearing.”
Six percent of these most prominent accounts were also found to have mentioned associations with QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory that portrays Trump as a warrior battling a shadowy cabal of liberal “deep state” pedophiles.
The Gateway Pundit, a digital outlet that has been criticized for publishing false information, was one of the most common links used in these trending posts.
Notably, nearly two-thirds (64%) of news consumers on these alternative social media sites said they favor the protection of free speech even if it brings with it some false content, while the majority of all U.S. adults (61%) said that tech companies should take steps to restrict false information even if it limits freedom of information.
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